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AirPods Max vs. Sony WH-1000xM4: Which headphones will win?

Apple AirPods Max vs. Sony WH-1000xM4
(Image credit: Tom's Guide/ Apple)

Apple AirPods Max vs. Sony WH-1000xM4: Which will prevail? Apple’s foray into over-ear, noise canceling headphones, AirPods Max, put it in direct competition with Sony’s WH-1000xM4, our favorite headphones overall.

The glaring difference on paper is the price: the WH-1000xM4 list for $349.99 and can often be found for less. The AirPods Max came out of the gate with a jaw-dropping $549 price tag. We’ll have to wait for the AirPods Max to become available before we can test whether they are worth the premium, we can compare the two headphones based on what we do know. 

This AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000xM4 face-off breaks down how the two match up in price, design, sound quality, active noise cancellation and battery. Do we think the AirPods Max can dethrone the WH-1000xM4 as our pick for best headphones?

AirPods Max vs. Sony WH-1000xM4: Price

I think you can guess where this one lands. When Apple announced the $549 price for the AirPods Max, there was a collective gasp throughout social media. The high cost puts the AirPods Max into a tier of golden-ear audiophile headphones, and are far more expensive than any headphone we recommend. Given Apple’s history and already long ship dates, don’t expect AirPods deals soon.

The Sony WH-1000xM4’s list for $349.99, on par with another great model, the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. But you can often find the WH-1000xM4 on sale. At the time of this writing, you can get them from Best Buy for $278.

That’s almost half the price of the AirPods Max, so the Apple headphones will have to be revolutionary to warrant that difference. 

AirPods Max vs. Sony WH-1000xM4: Design

The AirPods Max feature curved, rectangular cans that stand out from the crowd. Available in space gray, silver, green, sky blue and pink, you can match your headphones to your personal style. The cans are made of aluminum and they have a mesh canopy on the headband. 

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The WH-1000xM4 is pretty staid in comparison. Available in silver or black, they have a soft rubberized finish and a cushioned headband. The Sony headphones are less about style and more about function. 

Sony uses touch panels and gestures to allow you to control the WH-1000xM4. For example, you tap once to play or pause, and swipe up to raise the volume. AirPods Max don’t have touch controls, but feature a digital crown borrowed from the Apple Watch to let you do those things, and it activates Siri. Meanwhile, the WH-1000xM4 can be set up to work with Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa

AirPods Max vs. Sony WH-1000xM4: Sound quality and active noise cancellation

We love how good the WH-1000xM4 sounds. Sony’s headphones deliver excellent detail and booming bass, and they work well for a variety of musical styles, from hip-hop to jazz.  

(Image credit: Apple)

We haven’t tested the Apple AirPods Max, but initial reviews suggest they will also be a pleasure to listen to. Inside you’ll find 40mm drivers, 9 microphones and Apple's H1 chip for computational audio performance. In addition to active noise cancellation, AirPods Max have Adaptive EQ, a transparency mode and the Spatial Audio feature currently found on AirPods Pro. Using the built-in gyroscope and accelerometer to gauge the location of your ear, Spatial Audio can create a surround sound experience. 

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Tom's Guide)

The WH-1000xM4 also have 40mm drivers, along with two mics on each ear and proprietary Dual Noise Sensor technology that works with the HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1 chip to analyze and filter ambient sounds. The result is excellent active noise cancellation, on par with Bose. 

The only thing we aren’t crazy about with the WH-1000xM4 is the call quality, which is OK at best. Given how Apple’s AirPods Pro are known for handling calls well, we expect the AirPods Max to do the same. 

AirPods Max vs. Sony WH-1000xM4: Battery life

The WH-1000xM4 have an excellent 30-hour battery life with active noise cancellation turned on, and 38 without it — and our testing shows those numbers to be accurate. The new AirPods Max is supposed to get 20 hours of playback on a full charge (that’s the same as the Bose 700). That extra 10 hours of power for the Sony headphones is definitely worth noting. 

(Image credit: Apple)

AirPods Max charge via Lightning cable, while the WH-1000xM4 use USB. Apple says you can get 1.5 hours of listening with five minutes of charging. Sony offers an optional AC adapter that can get you 5 hours of power with just 10 minutes of charging. 

AirPods Max vs. Sony WH-1000xM4: Outlook

We’re excited to see how AirPods Max actually performs in testing. On paper, they’re an intriguing option among wireless over-ear headphones with active noise cancellation. But that price!

It will be hard to beat the Sony WH-1000xM4 performance for the price at which you can grab them. Excellent sound quality, noise cancellation and battery life put the WH-1000xM4 well ahead of the game. Apple has a lot to prove to make the AirPods Max worth the money. 

Michael Gowan

Michael Gowan covers soundbars, TVs, portable speakers and other audio- and video-related topics for Tom’s Guide. He’s written about music and technology for more than 20 years for a raft of publications including Wired, Men’s Journal, PC World and Macworld. When he’s not reviewing speakers, he’s probably listening to one anyway.